Serious father talking to teenage son at homeMost parents have talked to their teen about the importance of refraining from alcohol and drug use. However, many parents will also be faced with the question from their teen, “Well, did you ever drink/ use drugs?”

Parents who did not abstain may be taken aback, and unsure what to say. If you’re someone who did experiment with alcohol and drugs in their own past, you might be wondering how to relate that history, if at all. Should you lie and say you never experimented? Should you refuse to answer? Should you change the subject?

The first thing to do is find out why your teen is asking this question. Are they trying to get you off their back? Do they want to be able to justify their own experimentation? Are they simply curious about your experiences when you were their age? Address the reason underlying the question, but address it honestly.

Lying to your teen is rarely a good idea. Not only will they figure out the truth eventually, teens can often tell when a parent is being dishonest. If they think you’re trying to hide your past drug and alcohol use, they may conjure up a scenario out of “Requiem for a Dream” to represent your youthful mishaps. It also makes it much less likely that they will be honest with you about the topic, or take your advice.

Tell the truth about your drug and alcohol history, but feel free to tell a biased truth. Let them know what you’ve used, and let them know how it negatively affected you. This doesn’t have to be one of those “I dropped acid and jumped out of a third-story window” stories (unless you did.) Examples might be:

  • “I smoked a lot of pot in high school. We didn’t know then what we know now about how pot can lower your IQ if you smoke it as a teen. I wish I had known.”
  • “I went to a lot of parties and drank a lot. At one party, something really bad happened to someone who was drinking.” (Most people can remember something that happened to someone they know while intoxicated.) “That’s why I worry about you drinking.”
  • “I used Ecstasy a couple of times… the morning after, I always felt so miserable, I just wanted to die. It was stupid of me, because Ecstasy can mess up your brain, and sometimes that feeling doesn’t go away.”

If you used drugs or alcohol to the point where you got addicted, had to go to rehab, or got into trouble with the law, you won’t have to search too hard to discuss the negative consequences of your choices.

A history of mental health problems or substance abuse in your family should also be addressed. For people who are more vulnerable to poor mental health, from a genetic standpoint, drug or alcohol use can be the one extra stressor that kicks a mental disorder into existence. Addiction also has a genetic contribution. If addiction runs in your family, discuss how a family member’s addiction affected their life, and the lives of those around them.

Getting an honest answer, plus an honest reason why it wasn’t a good idea, can be really powerful for your teen. Teens want to know your history, but they’re also not eager to repeat your mistakes. My father steered me away from alcohol at a young age by talking about how an alcoholic family member lived his life. I knew I never wanted to have those problems, or cause that kind of pain to my family.

Do you remember having this conversation with your parents? How did it go? Did you discuss this with your teen already? What tips would you give parents for an honest, fruitful talk?